Amartya Sen and the Justice of the Fish

When Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen told a friend that he was to give a talk at Penn titled “Global Justice in the Contemporary World,” his friend voiced a word of caution.  

“He wondered whether it was wise to promise a speech on an unreal topic,” Sen recalled, with a laugh, at the Zellerbach Theatre.

Sen, who became the first non-American to win the National Humanities Medal this year, spoke at the School of Arts and Sciences’ Levin Family Dean’s Forum on March 1.  Though he himself was frail and soft-spoken, the economist’s message was bold: global justice “can be made into a much bigger force in this world.”  

Sen’s speech encompassed a lot of what he covers in his latest book, The Idea of Justice

Working toward justice, for him, is “preventing manifestly severe injustice.” We need to focus on tackling the gross injustices in the world, he urged—everything from famine to global warming—“even though the world after that removal would not be in any sense perfectly just.”

It’s fitting that Sen, whose contributions to economic theory have led governments and international institutions to develop practical solutions to alleviate famine and poverty, tried to leave students with a plan of action. “Our concentration has to be on global reasoning, particularly public discussion,” he said. “It’s important for the voice of the adversely placed and disastrously affected to come through interactive discourse, rather than only through violent skirmishes and threats of terrorist attack.”

The first step toward global justice, he elaborated, is discussion. Although global democracy is a worthy ideal, Sen reminded students to think practically: since it’s impossible to build a global, democratic state in the near future, “we have to understand democracy as a government of discussion,” Sen said. 

And although democracy hasn’t quite taken root worldwide, Sen believes that the ideal of public discussion is deeply ingrained in the history of countries across the world. Sen reminded the audience that the Buddhist Councils, which he characterized as an early model of public discussion, took place in India around 400 BCE. Public discourse isn’t just a Western ideal, Sen said; it is valued in many cultures, including the Middle East. 

Although frameworks for global discourse exist, Sen believes there’s a lot of room for improvement. The United Nations, for example, plays an important role in encouraging discourse, but according to Sen it is “hampered by the limited reach of the General Assembly and the biases of the Security Council.” Reforming the UN is a start, but it’s not enough. “No organization can be adequate on its own,” Sen said. Advocates for global justice also have to strengthen individual and organizational activism. 

Sen brought up the Occupy movement, which he said has somewhat succeeded in bringing national attention to certain economic injustices. But to really make an impact, he said, activists need to work together even more. 

Moreover, Sen called for more media coverage of such global discourses, reiterating that such discussions must focus on the practical rather than theoretical plane.  The aim should be to determine “how the world can securely and sustainably improve, rather than how the world could have perfectly just institutions.”

Driving Sen’s argument was a concept that deeply worried early Indian economic theorists: matsyanyaya, or “justice of the fish.”

Matsyanyaya is a system where the big fish can devour the small fish, and the small fish cannot appeal against it.  It is important,” Sen said, “that the justice of fish is not allowed to invade the world of human beings.”

—Maanvi Singh C’13

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